Armies of robotic drones may be just around the corner. Taking a cue from The Terminator films, the U.S. Navy is developing unmanned fighting vehicles that network together and operate in "swarms."
The U.S. military's unmanned drone planes have proven one of the most effective — and most controversial — weapons in the arsenal in recent years. American officials credit the use of Predator aircraft, which are armed with guided missiles, with eliminating a growing number of senior terrorist leaders who were beyond the reach of ground forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
And now, these unmanned aircraft are talking to each other.
Up until now, each drone has been controlled remotely by a human over a satellite link, but the vehicles have been unable to communicate with each other or share intelligence. But in a demonstration last week, the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) linked unmanned drones, including air and ground vehicles, into unmanned squadrons with a single person helming all six vehicles.
A series of ground sensors, video cameras and other devices linked unmanned Aerosonde Mk 3 vice III aircraft and ground vehicles into an intelligent, autonomous network.
These aren't Predator class attack planes, notes Ward Carroll, editor of Military.com. The demo involved smaller, Tier 2 craft, the sort of planes that NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration use as hurricane hunters.
But it's not the type of craft that's important -- it's the technology's potential.
"It's an initiative to coordinate air vehicles with ground vehicles or each other," Carroll says. "Instead of six guys controlling six UAVs, you've got one guy controlling six. This optimizes use of available resources in any battlespace."
NAVAIR's technology demo involves the work of several companies, but centers on an intelligent network device from Augusta Systems. The company's technology goes beyond simple connectivity, because its devices do data processing.
Augusta has, in other words, built rudimentary brains for planes.
Defense Industry Daily interviewed Patrick Esposito, president of Augusta Systems, about the swarm project last June. Esposito said swarming algorithms "are driven by digital pheromone-based maps of the area in which the swarms are operating. This is similar to the reasoning used by insects, which was the inspiration for the swarming concept.
"So, for example, the swarming algorithm, independent of human intervention, determines where a camera needs to look, where a UAV needs to fly, etc."
The Department of Defense's Unmanned Systems Roadmap calls for advances in precisely this type of autonomous operation and connectivity. Armies of robot planes that can communicate and work together may be the future of warfare.
Carroll thinks linked groups of vehicles are the future of combat drones. "UAVs are cool but we're not utilizing them effectively," he points out. "We're letting information leak out because we're not coordinating."
The Air Force has 7,000 UAVs, he noted, and the military needs to start thinking about midair collisions, interaction, saving intel, and so on.
Regarding the future of unmanned vehicles, Carroll is blunt: "We're wasting effort without this."
Jeremy A. Kaplan is Science and Technology editor at FoxNews.com, where he heads up coverage of gadgets, the online world, space travel, nature, the environment, and more. Prior to joining Fox, he was executive editor of PC Magazine, co-host of the Fastest Geek competition, and a founding editor of GoodCleanTech.